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    Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika looks on during a meeting with army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Gaid Salah in Algiers, Algeria, in this handout still image taken from a TV footage released on March 11, 2019. | Photo: Algerian TV via Reuters

Published 15 March 2019

A senior FLN official said the president, who has rarely been seen publicly since suffering a stroke in 2013, was "history now."

Thousands of protesters gathered in the Algerian capital Friday demanding President Abdelaziz Bouteflika step down in a continuation of efforts to pressure the 82-year-old ailing ruler to step down after the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN)  party showed signs of turning its back on him.

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Bouteflika Monday reversed a decision to stand for another term after mass protests against his rule, and postponed elections set for Apr. 18. However, he stopped short of relinquishing office and says he will stay on until a new constitution is adopted. He has recently been losing allies since returning from medical treatment in Switzerland.

Hocine Kheldoun, a senior FLN official said in a televised interview Thursday night that the president, who has ruled for 20 years, was "history now."

Kheldoun’s remarks to Ennahar television were another setback for Bouteflika, who hoped to pacify Algerians by promising to take steps to change a political landscape that has been dominated by a ruling elite for decades.

Kheldoun, a former ruling party spokesman, became one of the most senior FLN officials to break with Bouteflika publicly, saying that the party had to look forward and support the aims of demonstrators who have been protesting against Bouteflika.

Bouteflika, has been in office for two decades but has rarely been seen in public since suffering a stroke in 2013. Protesters say he is no longer in a fit state to rule.

For weeks, tens of thousands of Algerians have staged peaceful protests, seeking a new era with younger leaders who would offer greater social freedoms and prosperity.

"Those who think we are tired are wrong. Our protests will not stop," said doctor Madjid Benzida, 37, amid heavy police presence across the capital.

One of Algeria's most influential clerics, Mohamed Abdelkader Haider, appealed for patience, saying from an Algiers mosque, “Let’s be optimistic, Algeria needs to overcome its crisis."

New prime minister Noureddine Bedoui said Thursday he would form a temporary government of technocrats and others to work toward political change, and he urged the opposition to join in a dialogue.

A former minister who is familiar with Bouteflika's inner circle told Reuters that the president could not survive given the pressure building against him. "Game over. Bouteflika has no choice but to quit now," the former minister said on condition of anonymity.

Algeria is a major oil and gas producer, though the country’s biggest oil field Hassi Messaoud and the Hassi Rmel gas field have not been affected by the civil unrest, a source from state oil giant Sonatrach told Reuters.

Many Algerians say that the ailing president and other veterans of the 1954-1962 war of independence against France should hand over power to young technocrats who can focus on unemployment, poor services and stamping out corruption.

The military, which has traditionally played a behind-the-scenes power broker role, has distanced itself from Bouteflika and stayed in its barracks throughout the crisis. It is expected to retain influence under all scenarios.

Algeria was relatively untouched when the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings swept away veteran autocrats in the Arab world. Bouteflika and his allies managed to avoid major unrest by spending oil money on the population, handing out low interest loans and housing.

Bouteflika helped defeat a civil war against Islamist insurgents in which tens of thousands of people were killed in the 1990s, and many Algerians long accepted heavy-handed rule as the price of stability. However, the public has lost patience with deteriorating economic conditions and the FLN's failure to make the transition to a new generation despite the president's failing health.


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